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Posts tagged Improv Openings

Greg Hess is an actor and writer living in Chicago.

He’s performed with The Second City National Touring Company, teaches improv to actors and corporate clients, and created a Master Class series for iO Chicago. He plays the guitar, ukulele, banjo and accordion – just not at the same time.

Photo © Joshua Albanese/The Improvised Shakespeare Company

P&C: You encourage acting (and reacting) in a real way in scenes. Why do you think that’s important?

GH: I think when I teach the reason I like it is because it gets people out of their heads, thinking that they have to be the most clever person on stage.

The cool thing that I always liked about improv was that everybody brings something to the table because of just who you are and what your point of view is. And that isn’t gonna come out as well unless you’re able to basically, not freak out, and connect with your scene partner and do a good scene.

Some of the groups that I’m a part of do some of the more absurd, sort of, silly things on stage, but I think the cool part of that is that there’s always a commitment to how absurd it is. I would say Cook County does some of the more unbelievable scenes that I get to perform, but everybody’s emotional commitment to them is 100% real.

P&C: [We were] saying that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying; if you’re doing it with utter commitment and truly living that character you will buy it, but you will also laugh.

GH: You can ride a bus and see things that are crazier than what are on an improv stage, and the people on the bus are always really committed to whatever they’re talking about.

P&C: What is your view on openings, and why do you think they’re so hard for so many improvisers?

GH: Well, I just finished teaching a week of openings at iO for the Summer Intensive for Level 4, which is the Harold. I actually…you know what’s funny is, I don’t know why people think they’re so hard.

My feeling about openings is that they can be alienating, hard to watch, boring, and/or insane. And the reason for that is because everyone in the last few years, I think, has been taught that openings mean chanting and walking around in a circle and free-associating words and sort of building insane machines together…

P&C: Yes!

GH: …and then trying to figure out what that means.

And actually – and taking this from Holly, who’s my wife and is an amazing Harold teacher – she said “You know, an opening is just a time for us all to connect and to build a few ideas together, and it’s really nothing more than that.”

So the fact that openings have become such a burden is kind of too bad. Because really, an opening can be whatever you want it to be. And if you don’t like chanting and marching around then don’t do that.

P&C: (laughs)

GH: The cool part is that you’re just generating some ideas together and you’re connecting with your ensemble. And then hopefully you’re doing that in a way that makes the audience lean forward a little bit and thinks that “Oh, something’s happening here” rather than “Oh God, why did you take me to this on a Monday night? We’re never going out again.”

P&C: No wonder you’re not enjoying it if you’re doing stuff you’re not enjoying. That makes a lot of sense.

GH: The first Harold team I was ever on was a team called Sturgis. [It was] another team that had a bunch of great players on it: TJ Miller, and some guys from Cook County Social Club.

We actually went by the rule that we were gonna over-commit to the Harold in the opening at the very top, and try to do basically the most over-committed, insane opening that people had ever seen.

What it ended up turning into was unconditional support for the weirdest things, and we would get some of the biggest laughs of the night in our opening because we just thought they were so silly, we wanted to just have fun with it.

P&C: You didn’t get to see one, but that’s usually how an S&P opening goes.

GH: (laughs)

Cameron: We got nervous because we had superstar Greg Hess [onstage].

GH: Well I blame Cameron for ending that opening, because I’m all about doing super over-committed, insane openings… All I wanted to do was jump around and free associate and no one would let me.

Cameron: (laughs)

P&C: Is there anything that drives you nuts in improv scenes?

GH: Oh yeah. Plenty. (laughs) I think the one thing… I was teaching another class today and the one thing I told people that I don’t like to see is just people being so polite and timid that they’re afraid to react and really give each other gifts onstage.

You see it here and you see it wherever you go, and it’s because we’re making it up we feel like “waiting for something to happen” rather than kinda diving in the pool and swimming around.

I think a frustrating thing to me is always, you’re up there saying how much you like this girl, but you’re basically just standing there and talking. You’re not actually doing anything.

I love that quote that “Acting is doing.” I don’t know who said that; probably Utah Hagen or somebody… (laughs) But it is kind of true in improv. too. I think improv is doing, it’s not the opposite of doing. So if I do have a pet peeve it’s people who get sidelined by their fear or their brain or whatever it is that keeps you from having fun and playing onstage.

P&C: What’s the funniest or the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in one of your shows?

GH: Well, Cook County has definitely gotten somewhat naked on stage before, so that’s always interesting. Back in the early days we almost were kicked out of the theatre because someone took Brendan’s pants off and he sort of dared them to take his boxer shorts off, too. We got a stern reprimand – as we should have.

But actually, one of my favourite moments, somebody from Toronto brought up to me when we were at the bar the other night. They saw a show where I did a two-man show – it was a Cook County show – and it was just two of us, and I accidentally roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face. His nose sort of exploded in blood, and um, we kept doing the show.

P&C: Oh my God.

GH: We stuffed bar napkins into his nose from the closest table. I’ve honestly never been so terrified onstage. I was just so…I thought I’d broken his nose; I sort of knocked his lights out for a little bit. He was just so dazed.

We had about 30 minutes more of the show and we just kept going, and it ended up being one of our favourite shows we’ve ever done. It was fun to go to Toronto and somebody came up to me and said, “I was there the night you roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face and bloodied his nose.” I just loved that because it’s a great example of taking a risk, having the risk go terribly wrong, but then seeing some really fun things come out of it. (laughs)

P&C: That’s pretty hardcore.

GH: Yeah, it’s real punk rock improv, I guess. I guess the most punk rock thing is that I screamed after I did it and didn’t know how to deal with it.

P&C: (laughs) That’s amazing. OK, last question: You’re a working actor in a very competitive field. What advice do you have for improvisers who want to make a living at it?

GH: Well, I think my advice would be, Don’t think about the living until the living shows up.

I don’t think I ever thought I would make a living doing improv until one day I kinda realized that I had enough opportunities to piece together that it didn’t make sense for me to be a desk jockey anymore.

I think that only came out of working really hard to try and learn it and to find people that I liked performing with. And then after that things started to fall into place.

That doesn’t mean be complacent; it means work really hard. I like working really hard at it for how much you love it, and hopefully the return on it is people asking you to do more. So that was always kind of a nice thing to think that, Man, I didn’t move here to think that I would get to pay the bills this way, but now that I get to I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

P&C: That’s great advice. I’m a big advocate of “Do what you love and the money will follow” – and that could mean doing a bunch of different things in order to practice what you love. Susan Messing said when Second City had its 50th anniversary, some people didn’t go because they compared themselves to alumni like Colbert or Carell. But that’s their path, and everyone has their own path.

GH: I do think that improvisers can be really complacent and feel like no one’s giving them any opportunities. That’s a big problem in Chicago, is we have all these talented people that probably should be doing it at a different level, like on TV or whatever. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe they don’t think it’s gonna show up.

I think part of it is you have to put in the work for the return that you want. If you think that someone’s gonna show up and hand you a television show, it just doesn’t really happen. But if you write a TV show and do the work that it takes to learn how to write one, then there’s a better chance that you might get that opportunity.

Did you guys read the Patton Oswalt address at JFL?

P&C: No.

GH: Oh you’ve gotta read it, it’s really awesome. I just love his take on… That sort of, the playing field is just getting more and more equalized. There’s so many great young comics [and] with the internet and everything else; there is an audience and you just have to continue to try to make the thing that you wanna make, and hope that it can find itself.

You should read it, because his take is like, “The tides are changing,” and he definitely puts the feet of the industry to the fire, because he says “It’s time for you to stop thinking about it in the old way. Give these people who have a voice more opportunity.”

P&C: Very cool. We’ll read it and post a link. Thank you very much for your time.

GH: Thank you.

Note: You can click the link above to read the Oswalt piece. And if you ever have an opportunity to take a class with Greg, do it – or to paraphrase Susan Messing, be an idiot and an asshole.

P&C: You encourage acting (and reacting) in a real way in scenes. Why do you think that’s important?

GH: I think when I teach the reason I like it is because it gets people out of their heads, thinking that they have to be the most clever person on stage.

The cool thing that I always liked about improv was that everybody brings something to the table because of just who you are and what your point of view is. And that isn’t gonna come out as well unless you’re able to basically, not freak out, and connect with your scene partner and do a good scene.

Some of the groups that I’m a part of do some of the more absurd, sort of, silly things on stage, but I think the cool part of that is that there’s always a commitment to how absurd it is. I would say Cook County does some of the more unbelievable scenes that I get to perform, but everybody’s emotional commitment to them is 100% real.

P&C: [We were] saying that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying; if you’re doing it with utter commitment and truly living that character you will buy it, but you will also laugh.

GH: You can ride a bus and see things that are crazier than what are on an improv stage and the people on the bus are always really committed to whatever they’re talking about.

P&C: What is your view on openings, and why do you think they’re so hard for so many improvisers?

GH: Well, I just finished teaching a week of openings at iO for the Summer Intensive for Level 4, which is the Harold. I actually…you know what’s funny is, I don’t know why people think they’re so hard.

My feeling about openings is that they can be alienating, hard to watch, boring, and/or insane. And the reason for that is because everyone in the last few years, I think, has been taught that openings mean chanting and walking around in a circle and free-associating words and sort of building insane machines together…

P&C: Yes!

GH: …and then trying to figure out what that means.

And actually – and taking this from Holly, who’s my wife and is an amazing Harold teacher – she said “You know, an opening is just a time for us all to connect and to build a few ideas together, and it’s really nothing more than that.”

So the fact that openings have become such a burden is kind of too bad. Because really, an opening can be whatever you want it to be. And if you don’t like chanting and marching around then don’t do that.

P&C: (laughs)

GH: The cool part is that you’re just generating some ideas together and you’re connecting with your ensemble. And then hopefully you’re doing that in a way that makes the audience lean forward a little bit and thinks that “Oh, something’s happening here” rather than “Oh God, why did you take me to this on a Monday night? We’re never going out again.”

P&C: No wonder you’re not enjoying it if you’re doing stuff you’re not enjoying. That makes a lot of sense.

GH: The first Harold team I was ever on was a team called Sturgess; another team that had a bunch of great players on it: Nick Vaderah and TJ Miller and some guys from Cook County Social Club…

We actually went by the rule that we were gonna over-commit to the Harold in the opening at the very top, and try to do basically the most over-committed, insane opening that people had ever seen.
What it ended up turning into was unconditional support for the weirdest things, and we would get some of the biggest laughs of the night in our opening because we just thought they were so silly, we wanted to just have fun with it.

P&C: You didn’t get to see one, but that’s usually how an S&P opening goes.

GH: (laughs)

Cameron: We got nervous because we had superstar Greg Hess [onstage].

GH: Well I blame Cameron for ending that opening, because I’m all about doing super over-committed, insane openings… All I wanted to do was jump around and free associate and no one would let me.

Cameron: (laughs)

P&C: Is there anything that drives you nuts in improv scenes?

GH: Oh yeah. Plenty. (laughs) I think the one thing… I was teaching another class today and the one thing I told people that I don’t like to see is just people being so polite and timid that they’re afraid to react and really give each other gifts onstage.

You see it here and you see it wherever you go, and it’s because we’re making it up we feel like “waiting for something to happen” rather than kinda diving in the pool and swimming around.

I think a frustrating thing to me is always, you’re up there saying how much you like this girl, but you’re basically just standing there and talking. You’re not actually doing anything.

I love that quote that “Acting is doing.” I don’t know who said that; probably Utah Hagen or somebody… (laughs) But it is kind of true in improv. too. I think improv is doing, it’s not the opposite of doing. So if I do have a pet peeve it’s people who get sidelined by their fear or their brain or whatever it is that keeps you from having fun and playing onstage.

P&C: What’s the funniest or the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in one of your shows?

GH: Well, Cook County has definitely gotten somewhat naked on stage before, so that’s always interesting. Back in the early days we almost were kicked out of the theatre because someone took Brendan’s pants off and he sort of dared them to take his boxer shorts off, too. We got a stern reprimand – as we should have.

But actually, one of my favourite moments, somebody from Toronto brought up to me when we were at the bar the other night. They saw a show where I did a two-man show – it was a Cook County show – and it was just two of us, and I accidentally roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face. His nose sort of exploded in blood, and um, we kept doing the show.

P&C: Oh my God.

GH: We stuffed bar napkins into his nose from the closest table. I’ve honestly never been so terrified onstage. I was just so…I thought I’d broken his nose; I sort of knocked his lights out for a little bit. He was just so dazed.

We had about 30 minutes more of the show and we just kept going, and it ended up being one of our favourite shows we’ve ever done. It was fun to go to Toronto and somebody came up to me and said, “I was there the night you roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face and bloodied his nose.” I just loved that because it’s a great example of taking a risk, having the risk go terribly wrong, but then seeing some really fun things come out of it. (laughs)

P&C: That’s pretty hardcore.

GH: Yeah, it’s real punk rock improv, I guess. I guess the most punk rock thing is that I screamed after I did it and didn’t know how to deal with it.

P&C: (laughs) That’s amazing. OK, last question. You’re a working actor in a very competitive field. What advice do you have for improvisers who want to make a living at it?

GH: Well, I think my advice would be, “Don’t think about the living until the living shows up.”

I don’t think I ever thought I would make a living doing improv until one day I kinda realized that I had enough opportunities to piece together that it didn’t make sense for me to be a desk jockey anymore.

I think that only came out of working really hard to try and learn it and to find people that I liked performing with. And then after that things started to fall into place.

That doesn’t mean be complacent; it means work really hard. I like working really hard at it for how much you love it, and hopefully the return on it is people asking you to do more. So that was always kind of a nice thing to think that, Man, I didn’t move here to think that I would get to pay the bills this way, but now that I get to I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

P&C: That’s great advice. I’m a big advocate of do what you love and the money will follow – and that could mean doing a bunch of different things in order to practice what you love.

Susan Messing said when Second City had its 50th anniversary, someone didn’t go because they were comparing themselves to alumni like Colbert or Steve Carell. But she said that’s their path, and everyone her own path.

GH: I do think that improvisers can be really complacent and feel like no one’s giving them any opportunities. That’s a big problem in Chicago, is we have all these talented people that probably should be doing it at a different level, like on TV or whatever. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe they don’t think it’s gonna show up…

I think part of it is you have to put in the work for the return that you want. If you think that someone’s gonna show up and hand you a television show, it just doesn’t really happen. But if you write a TV show and do the work that it takes to learn how to write one, then there’s a better chance that you might get that opportunity.

Did you guys read the Patton Oswalt address at JFL?

P&C: No.

GH: Oh you’ve gotta read it, it’s really awesome. I just love his take on…that sort of, the playing field is just getting more and more equalized. There’s so many great young comics [and] with the internet and everything else; there is an audience and you just have to continue to try to make the thing that you wanna make, and hope that it can find itself.

You should read it, because his take is like, “The tides are changing,” and he definitely puts the feet of the industry to the fire, because he says “It’s time for you to stop thinking about it in the old way. Give these people who have a voice more opportunity.”

P&C: Very cool. We’ll read it and post a link. Thank you very much for your time, Greg.

GH: Thank you.

Note: You can read a transcript of Oswalt’s speech at Third Beat by clicking here. And if you ever have an opportunity to learn from Greg, do it. Or  to paraphrase Susan Messing, don’t do it, and be an idiot and an asshole.

“No one who grew up watching comedy says, ‘One day I hope to do openings.’” – Matt Besser

Whether you agree with Besser or not, openings are a fact of longform life. If you’ve been on a Harold team for any length of time, you’ve probably grappled with:

• What form your opening should take

• How long it should be, and

• What (if anything) to take from it

We’ve all seen – and God knows I’ve been in – plenty of terrible openings. They tend to include:

• “whooshing” sounds

• players standing in a semi-circle, waiting for someone else to make the first move

• players standing in a semi-circle, talking about some invisible thing on stage

If you find yourself struggling with openings, here are some tips to help you get more out of them. Whatever you do, it’ll be exponentially better if you commit to whatever is happening right now.

Standards & Practices is a team that’s famous for their high energy, character-driven openings. They start with a word and quickly generate ideas, people and situations using physicality and soundscapes. These may or may not come back later in the show.

Watch how they go from zero to 60, forming different points of view while staying connected in this opening:

Sometimes their openings are so physical, they go into their first scenes out of breath. No wonder audiences love them. Their opening isn’t a separate entity; it’s an integral part of the set. And check out that time: just under two minutes, or about the length of a good youtube video.

Get Cooler Gets

The drunk guy in the third row has been waiting all night for this. If you just say “Can I have a one-word suggestion?” odds are he’ll yell out “Fuck!” or “Shit!” or “Dickwad!”

Instead of making them go through their mind dictionary, help the audience by narrowing it down. For example:

“Can I have a location that would fit on this stage?”

“What’s your favourite sport/colour/product?”

“What’s something you would never pack on a vacation?”

“What’s a tattoo you’ve always wanted?”

It doesn’t really matter what the question is. Just keep it as short and focused as possible. And if the first suggestion is “shit,” wait for another. There’s nothing set in stone that says you have to take the first suggestion. Be choosy.

“If we’re on the same stage, we’re on the same page.” – Joe Bill

It sounds so basic, but the most important thing you can do in an opening is agree. However many players are on stage, your opening will be stronger and more dynamic if you build on each other’s ideas right from the start. That means really listening to whoever initiates, yes-anding and either matching or heightening their physicality, behaviour, voice, and whatever else they put out there.

Like scenes, your openings will be so much better if whatever you’re doing, you commit, fully and joyfully.

Information, Sound & Movement, and Stage Picture

Too much stand-and-talk is boring. Look for ways to add to what’s being created. You can:

• Narrate the action

• Scene paint

• Use your environment to create a more interesting stage picture. If the suggestion is “baseball,” maybe you take up positions on the stage like a baseball diamond.

• Become an object. Someone taking the form of a physical object is always more interesting to watch than an empty stage.

• For bonus cool points, use symmetry. If someone moves on one side of the stage, mirror them.

Go Deep, Not Broad

It’s easy to go on a tangent and start listing things (“salad ingredients,” to quote Jet Eveleth).

Player #1: We see a ball.

Player #2: It’s a colourful beachball.

Player #3: There’s a man holding it.

Was Player #3 listening? Absolutely, and you could argue he yes-anded. But in openings you want to go deep, not broad.

Explore the first thing until you’ve exhausted it, before you move on to something else. Is the ball made in China? Is it partly deflated? Does it have shark toothmarks on one side?

A Word About Length

During a rehearsal, my team got the suggestion “shining.” I initiated with “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” One of my teammates stepped out and said “Heeeeeeere’s Dave!” Others joined in: “Heeeeeere’s Marcie!” “Heeeeeere’s Donna!”

We went on to a second and third beat of that opening, but our coach pointed out that we could have ended it after the first. “Your set could be about exploring each of those characters you initiated.”

Boom!

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

“Decide what you want from an opening. Once you’ve got that, you can end it.” – Cameron Algie

In other words, you don’t need three beats, and it doesn’t have to be five minutes long, unless that’s what the team feels like it needs.

Finding Your Own Style

After you’ve performed as a team for a while, you’ll probably find yourselves gravitating towards a specific kind of opening. Then you can really have fun exploring it.

Mantown is another team with a signature opening style. They stand and face the audience, beer in hand, and deliver short monologues based on a word or topic. But really, they’re taking turns trying to make each other laugh. The audience goes crazy for it. Here’s a sample from one of their shows:

Adam Cawley: Sega Genesis was the better Sega.

Bob Banks: Better than the master system? Of course. It was the second generation of the master system. That’s like saying Super Nintendo is better than Nintendo. Yes!

Jason DeRosse: Genesis was the second-coolest book in the Bible.

Bob Banks: It was also the second-best time in Phil Collins’s life.

Like S&P, they throw out tons of information that they can use to inspire the set – or not. The monologues are fun in and of themselves. You can see a Mantown opening by clicking here.

For another, thoughtful take on openings, check out this guest post by Erik Voss at ussrocknroll.com.

Photo © Steve Hobbs

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